Tight, improved guidelines which upgrade environmental requirements on opencast mining were published last July. They would apply to any new permissions
I thank the Minister for his short reply. First, is he aware of the great concern about the incidence of asthma and bronchitic disease that is linked to opencast mining? Secondly, is he aware of concern at the Orgreave site in south Yorkshire, where phenol in the ground may be getting into dust and posing a real contamination problem? Thirdly, is he aware of the concern in Rotherham about a proposed opencast mine near Greasbrough? If the mine is allowed to go ahead, it will destroy the visual amenity of a beautiful green-field site in my constituency. In light of that, will the Minister agree to hold a public inquiry in south Yorkshire to explain the Government's real opencast mining policy and allay my constituents' fears?
The hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot pick a particular case for inquiry. I imagine that he is aware that the mineral planning guidance note MPG 3 gives his Labour local authority considerable scope on environmental issues, such as the visual side, noise, blasting, dust—which he mentioned—water, transportation, the built environment, nature conservation, subsidence and restoration. In addition to that, my Department is currently undertaking research into dust, blasting and transport and I hope that the results of that research will assist in alleviating the hon. Gentleman's concerns.
Is not the real issue where opencasting should take place? Should not priority be given to areas where dereliction is being cleared up, and should not communities' overall environmental and sustainable development needs be taken into account in a strategic sense when considering individual applications?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Operators will need to demonstrate that real benefits will result from their proposals, particularly if they wish to work in sensitive green-field sites.
The Minister will be aware that there is concern that private opencast operators are not meeting their obligations to restore opencast sites. Will the Minister consider some mechanism that will allow the Government to enforce private opencasters' obligation to restore those sites? That would prevent a company from allowing a subsidiary company to go into bankruptcy and thus avoiding its obligation to restore opencast sites, as occurred in the case of Sheffield Airport Ltd.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of our concern and we shall certainly look into any individual case about which he may care to write to me.
Will my hon. Friend remind those carrying out a vendetta against opencast mining that it is more economical to produce coal that way, it will lead to lower electricity prices and it will benefit consumers, about whom they do not care?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will agree that the new requirements on environmental issues protect the community as well as providing employment opportunities.
Is the Minister aware that one of the problems that local authorities have nowadays, as opposed to 15 years ago, is that when they are presented with an application for an opencast cite to be developed, they are told by local officials that, in some circumstances, if they oppose the case and it goes to appeal, councillors will be surcharged because, under current planning considerations, the Government have got them by the short and curlies? As a result, although they would like to oppose every single one, in many cases they are frightened to do so because they can be driven out of public office. Why do not the Government change that?
The hon. Gentleman's imagination always runs away with him. If he looks at MPG 3, he will see the ammunition and strength that local authorities have now to protect local communities, while reflecting upon the environmental improvements on one side, and the economic benefits on the other.
Will my hon. Friend reflect carefully on what the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) said? The problem of £100 companies welshing on the deal to reinstate is not a new one; it has happened for generations in gravel extraction and other industries. Surely we are adroit enough to stop it happening here.